Over the past year, a number of courts across the country have decided cases involving contributory infringement and the application of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s § 512(c) safe harbor in the social media context. Unfortunately for those who favor a uniform approach to the law, the precedent being developed is in many ways inconsistent. On one side of the country, the Ninth Circuit solidified § 512(c)’s protections for social media sites in UMG Recordings, Inc. v. Shelter Capital Partners LLC by holding that social media sites are not liable for infringing user-posted material subject to compliance with the DMCA’s notice and takedown procedures. Several months later on the other side of the country, the Second Circuit addressed similar questions in Viacom Int’l, Inc. v. YouTube, Inc. Judge Cabranes’s opinion introduced the possibility that a social media site-owner’s “willful blindness” to infringing activity may trigger liability, thus raising the specter of (very) expensive litigation. The Seventh Circuit has now held in Flava Works, Inc. v. Gunter that online service providers are protected from contributory infringement liability—and therefore need not depend on the DMCA’s safe harbors at all—where they do not actually host allegedly infringing material or encourage copyright infringement but merely link to such material.
In an opinion written by one of the country’s preeminent circuit judges and cat fanciers, Richard Posner, the court addressed whether to uphold a preliminary injunction against social bookmarking site myVidster for contributory copyright infringement. myVidster allows users to “bookmark” videos they find on the Internet, such as videos from YouTube or Vimeo. myVidster automatically retrieves the “embed code”—code that permits the video to be viewed in a browser window separate from the original website (for example, when you link to a YouTube video on your Facebook page, the site automatically embeds the video so that your friends can view the video on Facebook rather than having to go to YouTube). myVidster then creates a new page for the embedded video, replete with advertisements.
Plaintiff Flava Works is an entertainment company that produces and streams adult videos through various websites. Flava allows its customers to download its content solely for personal use. Users are not permitted to upload Flava’s videos to other sites or to create any additional copies of the content. Thus, in Judge Posner’s view, a user who copies Flava’s videos by downloading them and then uploading the copyright-protected video to a third-party website is a direct infringer of Flava’s copyright. Because myVidster didn’t upload the infringing videos, the court found that myVidster did not directly infringe Flava’s copyright.
The court next considered whether myVidster should be held liable for contributory infringement based on such copying by Flava’s users. Posner disregarded the oft-cited Gershwin Publishing Corp. v. Columbia Artists Management, Inc. definition of contributory infringement in favor of a more succinct standard from Matthew Bender & Co. v. West Publishing Co.: contributory infringement is “personal conduct that encourages or assists [direct] infringement.” The court ultimately held that myVidster was not liable for contributory infringement for two reasons.
First, myVidster does not make any copies of Flava’s videos—whether on its own initiative or at its users’ direction—but instead links to videos on servers controlled by third parties. In bookmarking offending videos, myVidster’s users were not copying such videos. And by embedding those videos on its site, myVidster was not furthering any copying. Rather, the court found that myVidster effectively acts as an exchange, connecting the server hosting the video and myVidster’s users. Posner wrote:
[The user’s] bypassing Flava’s pay wall by viewing the uploaded copy is equivalent to stealing a copyrighted book from a bookstore and reading it. That is a bad thing to do (in either case) but it is not copyright infringement. The infringer is the customer of Flava who copied Flava’s copyrighted video by uploading it to the Internet.
Second, the court found that myVidster had done nothing to encourage uploaders to upload Flava’s videos. Therefore, myVidster did not “encourag[e]” infringement and was not a contributory infringer. As a result, myVidster had no need to resort to the § 512(c) safe harbors.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Flava Works opinion is its discussion of the various flavors (flavas?) of contributory infringement. Google and Facebook submitted an amicus curiae brief in which they argued that the connections between myVidster’s (and other social bookmarking sites’) activities and any copyright infringement by users are simply too attenuated to constitute either direct or contributory infringement. They argued that myVidster was, at most, “contributing to contributory infringement.” Thus, myVidster’s potential infringement was not “secondary,” but rather, tertiary: the direct infringers are those who uploaded Flava’s copyrighted material, those who bookmarked the videos are arguably “secondary” infringers, while myVidster might be a “tertiary” infringer. Posner dismissed this argument, finding that common law notions of remoteness were sufficient to deal with this “contributing to contributory infringement” situation: “An injury will sometimes have a cascading effect that no potential injurer could calculate in deciding how carefully to act. The effect is clear in hindsight—but only in hindsight.” For Judge Posner, even in social media situations, there’s no need for the direct-secondary-tertiary “layer cake” model; there is simply infringement, contributory infringement, and non-infringement. And regardless of the theoretical “level” of removal of myVidster from the underlying direct infringement, myVidster was not “materially contributing” to that infringing activity—that is, myVidster’s actions were too remote from the uploader’s infringement—and was therefore not liable for contributory infringement by copying.
Judge Posner also addressed whether myVidster might be liable for contributory infringement based on public performance of Flava’s videos. The Copyright Act makes it unlawful “to transmit or otherwise communicate a performance . . . of the work . . . to the public . . . whether the members of the public capable of receiving the performance . . . receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times.” Posner identified two ways in which myVidster might infringe Flava’s performance right: “performance by uploading” and “performance by receiving.” On the “uploading” interpretation, “uploading plus bookmarking a video is a public performance because it enables a visitor to the website to receive (watch) the performance at will[.]” On the “receiving” interpretation, the performance occurs (or is, in other words, finalized) when the user clicks on and plays the video.
Posner dismissed the “uploading” view, arguing that myVidster is simply “giving web surfers addresses where they can find entertainment[,]” much like TimeOut and the New Yorker list the details of various social events happening in the real world. According to Posner, the only infringer on the “uploading” view is the uploader himself. myVidster does not interfere with the data streaming directly from the host to the viewer, so myVidster did not contribute to the uploader’s infringement of Flava’s public performance right.
On the “receiving view,” the infringing act occurs when the myVidster users click “play” on Flava’s videos. Flava argued that, by providing an exchange that makes Flava’s videos available to myVidster’s users, myVidster provides “‘support services’ without which ‘it would [have been] difficult for the infringing activity to take place in the massive quantities alleged.’” Posner, however, was not persuaded by the “receiving” argument either. First, myVidster was not selling the allegedly infringing videos and thus had no direct pecuniary motive for pushing visitors to view Flava content bookmarked by the site’s users. Second, there was no substantial evidence that the videos were being accessed via myVidster rather than other websites. Thus, in Posner’s view, there was no basis to hold that myVidster was “abet[ting] others’ infringements” of Flava’s public performance right.
Judge Posner left open the possibility that myVidster had invited users to post infringing material, in which case it could be liable for inducing infringement. Similarly, he stated that myVidster’s now-discontinued sideloading service constituted direct—not secondary—infringement. Sideloading typically involves the transfer of data between two local devices. myVidster’s service allowed premium members to back up bookmarked videos on myVidster’s servers. As at least one commentator has noted, this raises interesting issues for sites like Pinterest and other social networks that periodically sideload copyrighted material posted by users on the presumption that such sideloading is authorized by, and therefore done at the direction of, the user. If such actions constitute direct infringement, the §512(c) safe harbors may not be available.